Diderot's "Rameau's Nephew / D'Alembert's Dream"
2144. "review of Diderot's "Rameau's Nephew / D'Alembert's Dream""
- the complete version of my review
- credited to: tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE
- published on my "Critic" website February 20, 2023
Diderot's "Rameau's Nephew / D'Alembert's Dream"
by tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE - February 11-12, 2023
Michael Snow is dead, Long Live Michael Snow! Wha?! In the last yr at least 2 people died who I didn't really feel the importance of to me until after learning of their deaths. One of them was Michael Snow. It occurred to me that, despite knowing of his work since the 1970s, I'd seen very few of his movies. SO, I looked online for copies of them for sale & got a copy of his "Rameau's Nephew" (not the full title) wch came w/ a bk. I watched the movie & started reading the bk & realized that I'd just have to read Diderot's original to get a fuller picture of the whole meaning of it all. Fortunately, I'd had a copy of this bk in my personal library for decades & I think it's even the very same edition that appears in Snow's movie in one scene. SOO, I decided to read this 1st before finishing the bk about Snow's movie. From the FOREWORD:
"Le Neveu de Rameau, in form as in other respects unique, veers bewilderingly in style from the inflated, rhetorical and bombastic to the simple, slangy and coarse, and often the face value of what is said is not the author's intention, for he is being ironical as well as humorous." - p 7
I'd never read anything by Diderot before & while I found him interesting I'm not so sure I wd've wanted to be a character in either of these 2 bks. Diderot seemed bizarrely insensitive to the people he used.
"It was his work as a translator which prompted a syndicate of publishers to entrust to him, after one or two false starts with others, the task of translating Chambers's Cyclopedia, a fairly modest compilation, into French. But like so many things Diderot touched, the simple publisher's project rapidly enlarged itself until the work became the first great Encylclopedia of the modern world, running to seventeen folio volumes of text and eleven supplementary volumes of plates, and taking in all about twenty-five years to reach completion." - p 9
"An eternal adolescent, he was bursting with enthusiasm and curiosity about the worlds of science, art, music, the theatre and technology, full of the excitement of discovery, always elaborating some new theory, arguing with the wrong-headed, an idealist and a realist, sublime but not averse to the smutty joke, a down-to-earth materialist yet haunted by moral scruples and a highly developed social sense, a scientist always in a state of febrile emotion and seldom far from tears, a deadly enemy but the kindest and most companionable of men." - pp 10-11
That's quite a description isn't it? Some people can be unconscious of their contradictions & accept them as necessary to having flexibility of reaction. Others might be unconscious of their contradictions & might seem to be hypocritical or confused. Perhaps the bottom line is that a complex person isn't reducible to a single dogma.
"And finally Rameau's Nephew, a work belonging to no recognizable genre, neither novel nor play nor essay nor, in spite of its sub-title, satire, and unique in French literature." - p 11
&, perhaps, that's the description that comes closest to also describing "Rameau's Nephew by Diderot (Thanx to Dennis Young) by Wilma Schoen by Michael Snow" from roughly 300 yrs later.
"Rameau's Nephew is a masterpiece alone of its kind and not a little mysterious. Almost every aspect of it, dating, intention, meaning, is open to debate, and tentative conclusions about one aspect are often flatly contradicted by another." - p 15
"It seems rather stretching a point to suggest that Diderot wrote this brilliant piece of invective for the private satisfaction of knowing that it might possibly be published after his death and after that of most of the people attacked." - p 17
"Nor is the list of conjectures exhausted. Is it a dialogue between the respectable, law-abiding side of each one of us and the anarchist, irresponsible, wholly self-centered side?" - p 18
It's an ongoing project of mine to point out what I consider to be misues of "anarchy", "anarchist", "anarchism", "anarchistic", etc, in things that I read. The above's a perfect example. "law-abiding" is equated w/ being "respectable". It wd've been "law-abiding" in Nazi Germany to assist in the robbery & murder of Jews, homosexuals, dissidents, & Gypsies. Somehow, that's not "respectable" to me. The opposite of this is presented as being "anarchist" wch is equated w/ "irresponsible" & "wholly self-centered" & yet it's anarchists who put the most emphasis on taking responsibility for oneself & NOT relinquishing it to the following of laws & leaders. It's also anarchists who make themselves wholly unpopular by protesting & resisting ongoing acts of injustice - a process about as opposite of "self-centered" as it gets.
"I hold discussions with myself on politics, love, taste or philosophy, and let my thoughts wander in complete abandon, leaving them free to follow the first wise or foolish idea that comes along."
"There the most amazing moves can be seen and the poorest conversation be heard, for if you can be a man of wit and a great chessplayer like Legal you can also be a great chess-player and an ass like Foubert and Mayot."
This is the 1st flagrant insult from Diderot that appears in "Rameau's Nephew". It's no wonder that he didn't publish it when it was written. I can't really say that I completely approve of insulting people &, yet, there is some refreshment to be had from openly speaking one's generally more self-censored thoughts. "Rameau's Nephew" is full of insults.
"a hundred lickspittles would come and pay court to me every day (he seemed to see them all around him - Palissot, Poincinet, the Frérons, father and son, La Porte[)]" - p 44
These are real people, real enemies of Diderot.
"9. Palissot (1730-1814), arch-enemy of the movement, caricatured Diderot and his associates in the comedy Les Philosophes (1760). There were two Poinsinets, cousins, one of whom, Henri Poinsinet (1735-69), known as the younger, attacked the Encylopaedists in his comedy Le Petit Philosophe (1760). The elder Fréron (1719-76), the great enemy of Voltaire, waged an anti-philosophic warfare in his littéraire. His son was born in 1754, which again dates this part of the work well into the 1770s. Les Trois siècles de la littérature française, 3 vols, 1772, by Sabatier des Castres, Palissot and others, a sort of history of French literature, was violently biased and hostile to Voltaire and the Enlightenment. This reference is yet another factor in the final dating of this work." - p 128
"He is a compound of the highest and the lowest, good sense and folly." - p 33
"HE: You have always taken a certain amount of interest in me because, although I am a chap you really despise, I amuse you at the same time." - p 45
Diderot's depiction of Rameau's nephew presents him as simultaneously impossibly talented & a sycophantic creep - but slipping thru his cracks there's a FOOL, as in a comedian who speaks truth to power & gets away w/ it if he's charming enuf.
"He stirs people up and gives them a shaking, makes them take sides, brings out the truth, shows who are really good and unmasks the villains. It is then that the wise man listens and sorts people out." - p 35
He's also really the nephew of the famous composer. While I was reading this bk I got out the boxset I have of Jean Philippe Rameau's opera-ballet entitled "Les Indes Galantes" (1735; revised 1743) & listened to it 2 or more times to 'put me in the mood' for having an opinion about Rameau's music wch this bk's introductory scholarliness tells me Diderot didn't like. I know next to nothing of Baroque era music so listening to this opera-ballet just yields a respect for the apparent attn to detail w/o yielding a true appreciation of what might've made it most interesting in its day.
"He is a nephew of the famous musician who has delivered us from the plainsong of Lully that we have been chanting for over a hundred years, who has written so many unintelligible visions and apocalyptic truths on the theory of music, not a word of which he or anyone else has ever understood" - p 35
Wow, that really makes me want to read Rameau's music theory bk(s). I wonder if they're available in English?
"Rameau's 1722 Treatise on Harmony initiated a revolution in music theory. Rameau posited the discovery of the "fundamental law" or what he referred to as the "fundamental bass" of all Western music. Heavily influenced by new Cartesian modes of thought and analysis, Rameau's methodology incorporated mathematics, commentary, analysis and a didacticism that was specifically intended to illuminate, scientifically, the structure and principles of music. With careful deductive reasoning, he attempted to derive universal harmonic principles from natural causes. Previous treatises on harmony had been purely practical; Rameau embraced the new philosophical rationalism, quickly rising to prominence in France as the "Isaac Newton of Music". His fame subsequently spread throughout all Europe, and his Treatise became the definitive authority on music theory, forming the foundation for instruction in western music that persists to this day." - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean-Philippe_Rameau
Wow again. On 2nd thought I've probably intuitively rejected Rameau's theory from day one. Or even the day before day one. Nonetheless, I just bought the bk.
"I: Speaking of your uncle, do you see him sometimes?
"HE: Yes, going past in the street.
"I: Doesn't he ever do anything for you?
"HE: If he ever did anything for anybody it was without realizing it. He is a philosopher in his way. He thinks of nothing but himself, and the rest of the universe is not worth a pin to him. His wife and daughter can just die when they like, and so long as the parish tolls tolling their knell go on sounding intervals of a twelfth and a seventeenth everything will be all right. He's quite happy. That is what I particularly value in men of genius. They are only good for one thing, and apart from that, nothing." - p 37
Whew! That's harsh there Diderot old man!
"I: Steady, my dear fellow. Now look, tell me-I won't take your uncle as an example, for he is a hard man, brutal, inhuman, avaricious, he is a bad father, bad husband, bad uncle; but it is not quite certain that he is a man of genius, that he has taken his art very far or that his work will count ten years from now." - p 40
Uh.. I bought 3 records of his music today, 259 yrs after his death, so it looks like he made the cut.
"Who is disgraced today, Socrates or the judge who made him drink the hemlock?
"HE: And a fat lot of goood it has done him! Was he condemned and put to death any the less for that? Was he any the less a seditious citizen? Because he despised a bad law did that do anything to prevent his encouraging fools to despise a good one? Was he any the less impudent and eccentric as a person?" - p 39
These strike me as odd questions that Rameau's nephew is asking since he's being presented as an "impudent and eccentric" person himself. Diderot waxes ironic.
"Or again we could wish that Voltaire had the gentleness of Duclos, the ingenuousness of Abbé Trublet or the uprightness of Abbé d'Olivet" - p 42
"Charles Duclos (1704-72), novelist, historian and essayist. His most important work was the Considérations sur les moeurs de ce siècle (1750). In 1755 he became secretary of the Acamémie française. Although sympathetic towards the Encyclopaedists he was a moderate man and thought Diderot a violent fanatic, and used his influence to keep him out of the Academy. Hence Diderot's resentment.
"The Abbé Trublet (1697-1770) was a deadly enemy of Voltaire and a sarcastic, unpleasant person.
"The Abbé d'Olivet (1682-1768), historian of the Académie française, had a reputation for hypocrisy and dissimulation. Diderot is therefore ironically praising this trio for the opposite virtues to their known vices." - p 127
Rameau's nephew has gotten out of favor w/ the rich patrons he was usually brown-nosing b/c he left some of his contempt slip. Diderot encourages him to try to get back in their good graces.
"HE: Yes, you are right. I think that is best. She is kind hearted. Monsieur Vieillard says she is so kind! I know myself that she is. And yet to have to go and eat humble pie in front of the bitch! Beg for mercy at the feet of a miserable little performer who is constantly booed by the pit!" - p 48
"I: Ah, but you see, my friend, she is fair, pretty, young, soft and plump, and so it is an act of humility to which one more delicate than you might stoop upon occasion.
"HE: Let's get this clear: there is arse-kissing literally and arse-kissing metaphorically. Ask fat old Bergier, who kisses Madame de la Marque's arse both literally and metaphorically - and my goodness, in that case I should find them both equally unpleasant.
"I: If the way I'm suggesting doesn't appeal to you then have the courage to be a pauper.
"HE: But it is hard to be a pauper while there are so man wealthy idiots you can live on. And then the self-conetempt; that is unbearable." - p 49
Throughout, Diderot's position vis a vis Rameau & his nephew seems to be one mostly of contempt.. &, yet, when he gives these presumably highly exaggerated accts of his pioneering work as an air violinist (centuries ahead of air guitarists) his descriptions make the nephew seem astoundingly talented.
"(At the same time he takes up the position of a violinist, hums an allegro of Locatelli, his right arm moves as though bowing and his left hand and fingers seem to fly up and down the neck. If he plays a wrong note he stops, tightens or loosens the string, plucking it with his nail to make sure it is in tune, then takes up the piece again where he broke off, tapping the time with his foot; head, feet, hands, arms, body all play their part.[)]" - p 53
The fact that he's miming playing a piece by Locatelli is marvelous enuf but what I wonder is: If this had been written 80 yrs later wd it've been Niccolò Paganini? The nephew partially employs himself giving music lessons to the children of the aristocracy. Given that he's obviously passionate about music he expresses a cynical attitude to teaching it. 1st, tho, Diderot dismisses it as useless.
"HE: Eight! She should have had her fingers on the keys these four years.
"I: But perhaps I was not all that anxious to bring into her educational program a subject that takes up so much time and serves so little purpose." - p 56
I'm not really that sure that I like Diderot. I respect that he was an Encyclopaediast but it seems like he might've also been right at home in today's QUARANTYRANNY in wch music has been declard non-essential in contrast to Dunkin' Donuts. For me, the performance of music is a highly disciplined activity in wch perceptual acuity, intuition, & a sort of instinctual mathematic ability combine at a speed difficult to track. But then I'm not one of those people who's easily impressed by some big guys throwing a ball around & ramming into each other. I'm more impressed by any pianist who can play Alkan or Scriabin or Sorabji or Elliott Carter, etc. Doing that makes a football player look like little more than a boulder being shoved downhill in contrast.
"I: I am reflecting that everything you have said is more specious than logical. But let it go at that. You say you have taught accompaniment and composition?
"I: Knowing nothing whatever about it?
"HE: No, I certainly didn't, and that is why there were worse teachers than me: the ones who thought they knew something. At any rate I didn't ruin the intelligence and fingers of the children. When they went on from me to a good teacher, having learned nothing they had nothing to unlearn, and that was so much time and money saved." - p 58
Diderot admits to an affinity for some of the things that the nephew is saying.
"I'm not above the peasures of the senses myself. I have a palate too, and it is tickled by a delicate dish or a rare wine. I have a heart and a pair of eyes, and enjoy looking at a pretty woman. I like to feel her firm, round bosom, press her lips with mine, drink pleasure from her eyes and die of it in her arms. I am not averse to a night out with my men friends sometimes, and even a pretty rowdy one. But I won't hide the fact that it is infinitely more pleasureable for me to have helped the unfortunate, successfully concluded some tricky bit of business, given some good advice, read something pleasant, taken a walk with a man or woman I am fond of, spent a few instructional hours with my children, written a worthwhile page, fulfilled the duties of my position, said some tender, soft words to the woman I love and made her love me." - pp 66-67
Personally, I can enjoy the above things too - but coming inside a woman's vagina has a special place in those pleasures that makes it stand out.
"I have some soft notes which I accompany with a smile and an infinite variety of approving faces, with nose, mouth, eyes and brow all brought into play. I have a certain agility with my hips, a way of twitching my spine, raising or lowering my shoulders, shutting my eyes and being struck dumb as though I had heard an angelic, divine voice come down from heaven. That's what gets them. I wonder whether you appreciate the full power of this last attitude. Watch it. Look.
"I: It certainly is unique.
"HE: Do you think any somewhat vain female brain can resist it?
"I: No. I must say you have taken the talent for making fools of people and bootlicking as far as it will go." - p 74
It seems that Rameau's nephew was a sort of Elvis Presley of the Baroque era. These days he'd probably just get the girls stoned & dispense w/ the talent.
"You hear nothing but names such as Buffon, Duclos, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Voltaire, D'Alembert, Diderot, and God knows what epithets coupled with them. Nobody is allowed to have any brains unless he is as stupid as we are." - p 80
"This speech is a sustained piece of invective against enemies of the Encyclopaedic movement, whether wealthy people with vested interests in ignorance or reaction or their abject tools, the army of unsuccessful writers and professional scandalmongers (today we might call them gossip columnists)." - p 129
It's called the LCD, the Lowest Common Denominator, & it's as enforced now as much, if not moreso, than ever. Don't forget, Nikola Teslas wasn't exactly Mr. Popular but he invented much of what became our future.
"Moreover, bear in mind that in a manner as variable as behaviour there is no such thing as the absolutely, essentially, universally true or false, unless it is that one must be what self-interest dictates - good or bad, wise or foolish, serious or ridiculous, virtuous or vicious. Supposing virtue had been the road to fortune, either I should have been virtuous or I should have simulated virtue as well as the next man. But people wanted me to be ridiculous, and so I have made myself that way; as to the viciousness, nature saw to that unaided. When I say vicious, it is by way of speaking your language, for if we come to a clear understanding it might turn out that what you call vice I call virtue, and that what I call vice you call virtue." - pp 83-84
This strikes me as a foreshadowing of the philosophy of the Marquis de Sade. I wonder if de Sade read Diderot?
But back to the nephew's extraordinary Air Musicianship.
"(Thereupon he began to execute a quite extraordinary fugue. At one moment the theme was solemn and full of majesty and at the next light and frolicsome, at one moment he was imitating the bass and at the next one of the upper parts. With outstretched arms and neck he indicated the held notes, and both performed and composed a song of triumph in which you could see he was better versed in good music than in good conduct." - p 96
Bravo! How wd you know if I'm a lying if I claim to be giving a standing ovation?
"HE: A tune is an imitation, by means of the sounds of a scale (invented by art or inspired by nature, as you please), either by the voice or by an instrument, of the physical sounds or accents of passion. And you see that by changing the variables the same definition would apply exactly to painting, eloquence, sculpture or poetry. Now to come to your question: what is the model for a musician or a tune? Speech, if the model is alive and thinking; noise, if the model is inanimate. Speech should be thought of as a line, and the tune is another line winding in and out of the first. The more vigorous and true the speech, which is the basis of the tune, and the more closely the tune fits it and the more points of contact it has with it, the truer that tune will be and the more beautiful." - p 98
It's funny: the more people try to delimit music w/ theory that they think defines it at its best the more I think they're just being futile. I'm not so sure I don't feel the same about other similar endeavors in other disciplines. People who try to define reality are like people who try to control nature: nature will simply find a way around their obstacles. Diderot's intention may or may not've been to parody the speciousness of parasitical socializing but when he presents the nephew in a musical frenzy he's simply fascinating to me.
"He sang thirty tunes on top of each other and all mixed up: Italian, French, tragic, comic, of all sorts and descriptions, sometimes in a bass voice going down to the infernal regions, and sometimes bursting himself in a falsetto voice he would split the heavens asunder, taking off the walk, deportment and gestures of the different singing parts: in turn raging, pacified, imperious, scornful. Here we have a young girl weeping, and he mimes all her simpering ways, there a priest, king, tyrant, threatening, commanding, flying into a rage, or a slave obeying. He relents, wails, complains, laughs, never losing sight of tone, proportion, meaning of words and character of music." - p 102
& the reviewer moves on to the 2nd half of this exciting Diderot double-feature starting w/ the Introduction to D'Alembert's Dream:
"As early as 1749, in the Lettre sur les aveugles, he had shown how a man's ideas, character and even moral and religious position are determined by the purely material state of his body, in this case blindness from birth; so that, to take a simple example, he will not naturally have any conception of 'modesty' or 'indecency' in the matter of nakedness or performing the necessary bodily functions in public. To him the moral and spiritual universe is a different thing from what it is to the sighted. The horrifying implications of all this from the point of view of orthodox religion and morality earned Diderot a sojourn in the prison of Vincennes." - p 133
Did you see that coming? I didn't. Diderot was a classic thought criminal, imprisoned for even hypothesizing about how blindness might effect 'moral' positioning. Those were the days, eh? What thought crime might one be imprisoned for these days? According to Japan Times:
"Thoughtcrime is already a prosecutable offense. A U.S. federal court has indicted WikiLeaks leader Julian Assange for thinking about - merely for what-if musing in conversation with U.S. Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning - hacking a government computer. The government admits there was never an actual hack. Undercover FBI agents entice young Muslim men into nonexistent terrorist plots in order to entrap them. An Ohio man on probation for possession of child pornography was sentenced to seven years in prison for a handwritten diary he had written for his own use that depicted rape and torture of children - disgusting but purely theoretical." - https://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2019/07/08/commentary/world-commentary/harvard-thoughtcrime-now-punishable-offense/
One contemporary thought crime of particular importance to me is thinking that vaccination against covid-19 is not only ineffective but harmful:
"Almost half of Democrats who voted in the poll think state and federal governments should be allowed to either fine or imprison those who publicly question COVID-19 vaccine efficacy.
"Forty-eight percent of Democrats taking the poll were in support of the criminal punishment of vaccine critics, whether the criticism appeared on television, radio, or even on social media. Overall, only twenty-seven percent of all respondents were in support of the punishment.
"The poll also reportedly says it answers just how far Democrats are willing to go to punish those refusing to get the vaccine. Forty-five percent of Democrats who took the poll were in favor of the government forcing people who refuse the vaccine to live in designated facilities or locations. Twenty-nine percent of Democrats who took the poll reportedly say they would be in support of parents who are against getting vaccinated losing custody of their children."
To me, that's utter insanity & proof-positive that Democrats are neo-illiberals (wch doesn't mean that I'm pro-Republican) who're so easily brainwashed that they're willing to resort to any police state extremity. But I (don't really) digress.
In D'Alembert's Dream Diderot, once again, uses real people, real contemporaries of himself, real friends & acquaintances, & has them say things they weren't likely to say the saying of wch in print were likely to be an embarrassment to them. I have to wonder what was going on in Diderot's mind when he wrote this. As w/ Rameau's Nephew he seems astonishingly flippant about how he negatively depicts other people. Maybe being put in prison for a thought crime didn't succeed in pulling his teeth or his punches.
"The two friends realized that such scandalous matter, put into the mouths of very well-known people, a famous mathematician, a famous literary hostess and a distinguished physician, meant not only that publication was out of the question but also that the fewer people in the secret the better."
"D'Alembert insisted that the manuscript be destroyed, and Diderot, always tender-hearted, regretfully yielded to an old friend." - p 135
Diderot's alleged "tender-hearted"ness certainly doesn't show in either of these 2 bks. As for the ms's destruction? The publication of it & my ability to read it is proof to the contrary.
"Mademoiselle de L'Espinasse had died in 1776, D'Alembert, a broken man after her death, had retired into misanthropic isolation, while Diderot was old and tired. Permission was given and the text appeared in four successive numbers from August to November of that year. But that was not publication; it was only clandestine circulation." - p 136
"There are some physical acts which have nothing to do with morality. The only relevant question that should be asked about such acts is: is this act harmful to the individual, to another human being or to society? If the answer is no, and especially if the act gives pleasure to the individual, then it is no conern of morality, which is a social thing. By this standard the conventional moral code in sexual matters is radically changed, for solitary or homosexual behaviour is clearly to be preferred to selfish, unreciprocated or violent 'normal' acts which may imperil the happiness, health and possibly even life of another, to say nothing of unwanted children and their sufferings. In this, as in so many respects, Diderot is uncannily modern." - pp 138-139
It seems that in the yrs leading up to the French Revolution that many, many forward-thinking ideas were put forth. If revolutions only implemented these ideas & enabled a progressive leap they'd be alot more palatable. Unfortunately, what tends to happen instead is that there's alotof slaughter that happens. That was certainly the case w/ the French Revolution. The problem is that the revolution happened b/c the gap between the haves & the have-nots was just too insane & the resultant bloodshed is to be expected as a retaliation.
"But it is questionable whether his main object was as much to expound a system of physiology as to sound a trumpet-blast for materialistic determinism against the forces of metaphysics, conventional morality, belief in the supernatural and obscurantism used as pretexts for man's interference with his fellow-man." - p 140
That's all well & good.. but why am I so seemingly inclined to be convinced that no philosophy in particular will really be an improvement? I look at nature: non-humans don't seem to have a philosophy & they seem to go about their business somehow. Sure, predators weed out the slow & the weak.. but life seems to go on w/o thought criminal imprisonments, that, in itself, is impressive in contrast to the endless warring that humanity engages in.
"Diderot does make" [Mademoiselle L'Espinasse] "appear unnecessarily obtuse at times, and at others coquettish, sniggerly prurient and in fact not a very pleasing personality. The truth was, as all those who knew her at all well agreed, that her personal charm matched her intelligence, and indeed had it not been so she would have never succeeded, with very little money and few material resources, in attracting to her modest salon some of the finest brains in Europe." - p 140
I don't think I gave as deep a reading of this as the obviously well-informed author of the above-excerpted introduction, L. W. Tancock, but I didn't find L'Espinasse's character nearly as objectionable as Tancock did. Her comments seemed reasoable & astute to me.
Next, there's a biographical note on the characters, starting w/ D'Alembert.
"Jean le Rond D'Alembert (1717-83)"
"He became one of the greatest mathematicians of his day, member of most learned societies in Europe, including the Académie des Sciences and the Académie française. Co-editor with Diderot of the Encyclopédie, his Discours préliminaire at the head of Volume I in 1751 was the great manifesto of positivism in the eighteenth century, though D'Alembert himself was not a militant atheist but a true sceptic, unable to accept the uncompromising claims of belief or unbelief." - pp 141-142
"The salon of Mademoiselle de L'Espinasse became the most informal, but also intellectually the freest and most advanced in Paris, the very centre of the Enlightenment." - p 145
What's this Enlghtenment that's being bandied about here? one might ask (if one cared & didn't already know).
"The Enlightenment the great 'Age of Reason' is defined as the period of rigorous scientific, political and philosophical discourse that characterised European society during the 'long' 18th century: from the late 17th century to the ending of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. This was a period of huge change in thought and reason, which (in the words of historian Roy Porter) was 'decisive in the making of modernity'. Centuries of custom and tradition were brushed aside in favour of exploration, individualism, tolerance and scientific endeavour, which, in tandem with developments in industry and politics, witnessed the emergence of the 'modern world'."
"Many commentators of the late 17th century were eager to achieve a clean break from what they saw as centuries of political tyranny, in favour of personal freedoms and happiness centred on the individual. Chief among these thinkers was philosopher and physician John Locke, whose Two Treatises of Government (published in 1689) advocated a separation of church and state, religious toleration, the right to property ownership and a contractual obligation on governments to recognise the innate 'rights' of the people.
"Locke believed that reason and human consciousness were the gateways to contentment and liberty, and he demolished the notion that human knowledge was somehow pre-programmed and mystical. Locke's ideas reflected the earlier but equally influential works of Thomas Hobbes, which similarly advocated new social contracts between the state and civil society as the key to unlocking personal happiness for all."
So what happened? I don't see much personal happiness. I reckon it was worth a try.
"Théophile de Bordeu (1722-76), a distinguished doctor, had contributed to the Encyclopédie and in 1756 had published researches into the behaviour of the pulse, in which he discussed the significance of the pulse in diagnosis. In this dialogue there are a few obvious references to his known interests and belief in letting nature do her own remedial work whenever possible, but clearly he is a mouthpiece for Diderot's arguments." - p 147
D'Alembert's Dream starts off w/ an awake conversation between Diderot & D'Alembert in wch Diderot tries to persuade D'Alembert that Diderot's logic is superior.
"a Being of whom I have no conception whatever, so contradictory is he by nature, is difficult to accept. But other difficulties lie in wait for anyone who rejects him, for after all, if this sensitivity that you substitute for him is a general and essential property of nature, then stone must feel.
"DIDEROT: Why not?
"D'ALEMBERT: That takes a bit of swallowing." - p 149
Animism? Hylozoism? How do we know that a stone doesn't feel?
"Actual energy manifests itself by motion and potential energy by pressure. In the same way there is an active sensitivity which is characterized by certain reactions observable in animals and perhaps plants, and a latent sensitivity, the existence of which can only be verified when it changes into active sensitivity.
"DIDEROT: That's exactly it. You have hit the nail on the head." - p 150
"DIDEROT: Could you tell me what the existence of a sentient being means to that being himself?
"D'ALEMBERT: Consciousness of having been himself from the first instant he reflected until the present moment.
"DIDEROT: But what is the consciousness founded on?
"D'ALEMBERT: The memory of his own actions.
"DIDEROT: And without that memory?
"D'ALEMBERT: Without that memory there would be no 'he', because, if he only felt his existence at the moment of receiving an impression, he would have no connected story of his life. His life would be a broken sequence of isolated sensations." - p 155
I don't see what the fuss is all about - after all, 'I think therefore I might be thinking' as the philosophers might say if they were to say it.
"D'ALEMBERT: While not understanding the nature of sensitivity or matter, I can see that sensitivity is a simple quality, one and indivisible, and incompatible with any divisible object or suppositum.
"DIDEROT: Sheer metaphysico-balderdash! What, don't you see that all the properties and all the appreciable forms with which matter is endowed are essentially indivisible? There cannot be more or less impenetrability. There is half of a round body, but not half of roundness. There is more or less motion, but you must either have motion or not. There is no such thing as a half, a third, or a quarter of a head, an ear or a finger, any more than there is a half, a third or a quarter of a thought." - p 160
That's interesting. In the mid 1970s I made a score that called for a computer to create 'a fraction of a sound. idea.' The very 1st vaudeo I'm in has me reading this text: "Computer Interview" (1977): on my onesownthoughts YouTube channel here: https://youtu.be/WTnMBakpHP8 ; on the Internet Archive here: https://archive.org/details/computer-interview . Given that computers, esp in the form of AI, are being given more & more credit for being able to do just about anything, I now perceive my score as a sort of wry challenge.
This awake conversation ends when D'Alembert goes to bed for the night.
"D'ALEMBERT: Well, so long, my friend, good night and sleep well.
"DIDEROT: Laugh if you like, but you will dream about this talk when your head is on your pillow, and if it doesn't make sense, it will be too bad, for then you will be obliged to entertain some even more ridiculous hypotheses.
"D'ALEMBERT: Don't you believe it; sceptic I shall go to bed and sceptic I shall get up." - pp 162-163
Of course, the reader is being set up here, D'Alembert has a tumultuous night talking in his sleep & causing Mademoiselle de L'Espinasse enuf concern for her to bring in Doctor Bordeau who takes D'Alembert's mutterings in stride b/c 'great minds think alike' n'at &, as the translator noted, Bordeau is basically Diderot's mouthpiece so he becomes an uncanny Voice of Enlightenment.
"MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: Nothing we ought to do for him?
"BORDEAU: No nothing.
"MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: I'm glad of that; he hates taking medicine.
"BORDEAU: So do I. What did he eat for supper?
"MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: He wouldn't eat anything. I don't know where he spent the evening, but he came back with something on his mind." - p 165
"MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: When he had been got to bed he didn't settle down in his usual way, for he normally sleeps like a child, but began tossing and turning, throwing his arms about, pushing back the bedclothes and talking out loud.
"BORDEAU: Talking about what? Geometry?
"MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: No, it was just as though he were delerious. At first some gibberish about vibrating strings and sensitive fibres. It seemed so crazy to me that, having decided to sit up with him all night and not knowing what to do with myself, I moved a little table to the foot of his bed and set about writing down whatever I could catch of his wanderings." - p 166
"[']And then there is the fact, as he had clearly stated, that there must be some difference between the contact of two molecules that are sensitive and two that are not. And what can that difference be? The usual action and reaction . . . but of a special character. . . . So everything works together to produce a sort of unity which is only found in the animal world. . . . Really, if that isn't what you can call truth it is very like it. . . .' But you are laughing, Doctor. Can you see any kind of sense in all this?
"BORDEAU: Quite a lot.
"MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: He is not out of his mind, then?
"BORDEAU: Certainly not." - p 168
What he's doing is continuing his conversation w/ Diderot in his sleep.
"MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: He went on: 'Well, Mr. Philosopher, so you think there are polyps of all kinds, even human ones? But we don't find any in nature.'
"BORDEAU: He obviously hadn't heard of the two girls who were connected by the head, shoulders, back, buttocks and thighs, and lived in that condition, stuck together, up to the age of twenty-two, and then died within a few minutes of each other. What did he say next?
"MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: The sort of nonsense you only hear in the madhouse. he said: 'That is past or to come. And besides, who knows the state of affairs on other planets?'" - p 172
"BORDEAU: Well, universal sensitivity, the formation of a sentient being, its unity, the origin of animal life, its duration and all the questions these matters raise.
"MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: For my part I call all these things a lot of nonsense, something that I admit we can dream of when we are asleep, but which a reasonable man will not bother about in his waking hours.
"BORDEAU: And why, please?
"MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: Because some of them are so obvious that it is pointless to look for an explanation, but others are so obscure that you can't make head or tail of them, and all of them are absolutely useless.
"BORDEAU: Do you think, Mademoiselle, that it doesn't matter whether you accept or deny the existence of a Supreme Intelligence?
"MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: No." - pp 177-178
"And then you talk of individuals, you poor philosophers! Stop thinking about your individuals and answer me this: Is there in nature any one atom exactly similar to another? No. . . . Don't you agree that in nature everything is bound up with everything else, and that there cannot be a gap in the chain? Then what are you talking about with your individuals? There is no such thing; no, no such thing. There is but one great individual, and that is the whole." - p 181
That seems to be veering dangerously in the direction of '& the whole is God'. Blasphemer! No wonder he wanted the ms destroyed. Hence we arrive at what I call "Entity Boundaries":
"BORDEAU: What really sets a limit to the space you feel you occupy? I mean the real sphere of your sensations?
"MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: My sight and touch.
"BORDEAU: Yes, by day, but at night, in the dark, when you are dreaming about something abstract, or even by day when your mind is preoccupied?
"MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: There are no limits at all. I seem to exist as a single point, I almost cease to be material and am only conscious of thought. I have lost the sense of position, motion, body, distance and space. The universe is reduced to nothing and I am nothing to the universe.
"BORDEAU: That is the extreme limit of concentration of your existence, but its theoretical expansion knows no limit. Once the true limit of your physical sensitivity has been passed, whether by retreating and so to speak condensing yourself, or by extending outwards, there is no knowing where it might lead." - p 196
I don't follow philosophy so I direct this question to readers of this review who do: Has this issue of entity boundaries been explored in greater detail or is Diderot's presentation of it about as far as it goes?
The dr's philosophy of medical practice that takes into consideration nature's superiority jives w/ my own.
"But it is ten-thirty, and I can hear a patient calling for me right across the town!
"MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: Would he be in any danger if you didn't go and see him?
"BORDEAU: Probably less than if I saw him. If nature can't do the job without me we shall have our work cut out to do it together, and for sure I can't do it without her." - p 201
"D'ALEMBERT: What's all this you're saying?
"MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: I am saying that the corporate spirit of a monastery keeps its character because the monastery replaces its membership only gradually, and when a new monk arrives he finds a hundred old ones who influence him to feel and think like them. One bee goes away, but another replaces it in the swarm, and he soon knows what's what.
"D'ALEMBERT: Get along with you and your tales about monks, bees, swarm and monastery.
"BORDEAU: She's not as silly as you might think. There may be only one centre of consciousness in an animal but there are countless impulses, for each organ has its own." - p 202
It's like having an erection & needing to pee at the same time.
Diderot uses Bordeau to justify his formal approach.
"BORDEAU: Why not? The art of creating fictional beings in imitation of real ones is true poetry." - p 226
Then he has Bordeau flirt w/ Mademoiselle L'Espinasse.
"We shall relegate to the lowest rank the action which neither gives pleaure nor profit.
"MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: So far I can share your opinions without a blush, but where is this going to lead us?
"BORDEAU: You will see, Mademoiselle. could you tell me what benefit or pleasure chastity and absolute continence yield either to the individual practicing them or to society?
"MADEMOISELLE DE L'ESPINASSE: Well, none, of course." - pp 226-227
& since Diderot has been using Bordeau as his mouthpiece one wonders whether he was hoping to have sex w/ Mademoiselle L'Espinasse.
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